The plight of Briggy

Briggy, Lower Marsh

Briggy has a vintage bike stall on Lower Marsh. He said he has been having problems with the managers of the Lower Marsh market. The upshot is that his stall might be closed. He seems like a lovely guy and I really hope he can sort the problems out. You can listen to an interview I did with Briggy below.

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Reasons to ride

Workhorse by crzyhorse
Workhorse, a photo by crzyhorse on Flickr

In case my earlier post suggested otherwise, I just wanted to say that, most of the time, cycling in London is awesome — for these reasons:

  • My commute gives me an hour or so of daily physical exercise.
  • It gets me to where I’m going on time.
  • It’s way cheaper than the tube.
  • When you do have to spend money — BIKE GEAR! — it’s generally more satisfying than the monthly spend on public transport.
  • For me, it’s the quickest, most practical way to get around London.
  • You get to see cool stuff.

These last two points were brought home to me recently when I was working on a video project that involved several locations across central and east London.

We had one day to get the shots. Our team of two — me and the immensely talented Tom Wootton — was solely bike-powered. All our gear fitted into a pannier and a backpack. A judiciously applied bungee cord took care of the tripod.

Throughout the day we zig-zagged from location to location, with time for lunch at look mum no hands. Some unknown setback had choked the roads with traffic. No-one was going anywhere — except the cyclists. We coasted past.

The bulk of the filming was completed that day — an impossibility if we’d used any other form of transport. Even a motorcyle would have struggled due to its need for a dedicated parking space. But a bike can be wheeled inside or locked, with due diligence, to a lamp post or railings.

Late in the evening I cycled back home over London Bridge, the city, the river, all glittery and magnificent.

It was awesome.

And here’s the completed video.

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The confounding variable

Here is an interview with my brother, John-Paul Young, who is a songwriter and postie, among other things. You can listen to some of the songs he wrote here. One day I’d like to make a documentary with him on the ancient art of delivering letters by hand which, it seems to me, is on its last gasp. For now though, I hope you enjoy this interview.

Tell us a little about the writing process behind your early songs. How did you go about getting the songs down on tape?

My recording methods were very primitive to start with. When I was 15 or so, trying to do multi-tracking involved moving furniture around, re-arranging speakers so they faced each other and using multiple tape-recorders. It took so long to set everything up that I often couldn’t be bothered doing any actual music-making by the end of it. Any recording I did do inevitably came out sounding sludgy and terrible. Things improved immeasurably when a departing English teacher from school sold me his ghetto blaster. It had a double tape-deck in it, and he showed me how to ‘bounce’ tracks together. It was like a poor man’s four-track. It was at that point that I started being able to record things like ‘Freak beneath the streetlight’.

With those songs, I usually started with the music first–i.e., a chord progression or riff. I wrote all the song-sections out on paper beforehand, so I would know when to change from chord to chord. I couldn’t read music so would just write the chord names, and if I was using a chord I couldn’t name, I would just draw a little picture of it to remind myself.

Having it all planned in advance also made it easier to add in the other instruments later. It was only after I’d recorded the backing music that I would give some thought to what I was going to sing–which seems a bit backwards to me now. I usually wrote the lyrics very quickly, with very little second-guessing. Likewise, I would only do one or two vocal takes before moving on. The last thing I would usually do was add the ‘confounding variable’–some kind of interesting noise or instrument that I had stumbled across. After that, it would be put onto a ‘master tape’ and thrown into the bedroom drawer.

Did you share the finished songs with many people? How many songs did you produce back then? What were your hopes for them?

I wrote dozens of songs back then. I was very prolific and could usually write one or two songs a night, which I would then compile into little albums. One album was called ‘Manufactured Moods’ and another was called ‘Unfinished Anthology’. I even did a Christmas album.

I was quite self-conscious about my reedy voice, so I did not let too many people hear the songs. Mum was my first listener, and she usually offered carefully-worded encouragement. Hutch, of ‘The Wash-house Tapes’ fame, was another early recipient of one of my albums. He rang Mum and Dad up afterwards and asked specially to speak to me, and said he loved it. I remember feeling very proud of that. In my last year at school, I developed a massive crush on a girl who worked at the library. My courting method involved skulking into the library and waiting until she smiled at me. I would then thrust a tape of my songs at her before promptly fleeing the premises. This routine was repeated every week for a number of months, and was unsuccessful.

Beyond working some kind of romantic magic, I did not have many hopes for those songs. I knew they were too rough and odd to attract much of an audience. I tended to think of them more as ‘stepping stones’ towards being able to write ‘proper’ songs. But once I learnt how to write proper songs at Polytech (I did a degree in Songwriting and Composition), I found myself wanting to return to that early, instinctive way of making music.

When did you first pick up a guitar and what inspired you to write a song?

Mum made me attend guitar lessons when I was about 10, and I quickly came to despise the instrument. I did not like the varnish-y way it smelt and I found it uncomfortable twisting my hand into the chord shapes. To get out of practising, I used to sneak up in the night and scrape away at the strings with a pair of scissors, so that they would break when I was called upon to do my nightly 20-minutes of guitar-playing. Eventually, the guitar lessons were quietly dropped. The guitar then lay dormant for several years, until I was ready to take it back up again at the age of 15.

I can’t recall what inspired me to start writing my own songs. I think my lack of musical skill–i.e., I couldn’t sing that well–meant that doing covers was beyond me, so it seemed easier to write my own songs. My early inspirations probably stemmed from the usual vagaries of adolescent politics, such as feeling unpopular or hunted in one way or another. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to too many overly angsty lyrics. In fact, one of my favourite lyrical couplets dates from that time: ‘Do you expect me to just quote ‘King Lear’/ while you hit me with your deck chair?’.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring bedroom recordists?

Embrace your ineptitude, and beware of the ‘cult of competency’. Don’t over-emote.

What are you working on these days?

I am working on my third album. These new songs, in contrast to the songs I wrote when I was 17, are taking ages to finish. At first it was frustrating, but now I am enjoying chipping away at them. Hearing those old songs recently has reminded me of the way I used to write music back then, so I am trying to reclaim some of those old methods.

What’s your favourite chord and why?

I have always liked the common G chord. It is like the Optimus Prime of guitar chords–sturdy and uncomplicated, but capable of resolving any number of sinister minor-chord progressions.

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JP Young (left) and the author

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So that’s what that is

I’ve often groped for a phrase that accurately sums up what it is like to be strafed by a passing car or motorbike while on a bike: the sudden onrush of terror as a vehicle slices past mere centimetres from your body, engine revving, driver gesticulating and/or yelling abuse, followed by the sense of outrage, heightened by the fact that you literally have no recourse in such situations, and (maybe this is just me) a feeling of hurt. You are powerless. But not only that, someone has just expressed their utter contempt for your continued existence. As McNulty would put it: What the fuck did I do?

The vehicle accelerates away or, as often happens, almost immediately brakes and stops at the approaching intersection. Once, hands shaking, I knocked on the driver’s window and asked him why he’d chosen to run the risk of killing me for the sake of arriving at a red traffic light a couple of seconds earlier. He glanced at me with mild bemusement, as if the answer was obvious. A young girl was sitting in the passenger seat. His daughter, maybe. I wanted to say, I’ve got a daughter too, man. And a son. Think about that, YOU CUNT. But, of course, I didn’t say that.

Here’s how it can happen. You’re on your bike cycling down a narrow road. To avoid being doored and to prevent vehicles from passing too closely, you move into what is called ‘the primary position’ in cycling proficiency classes, i.e. the centre of the road. I do this very rarely and only when the road is so narrow that there isn’t room for a car to pass me safely. Knocking me off my bike would cause a massive deal of hassle for all concerned, so it’s kind of a favour. Unsurprisingly, most drivers don’t see it like that.

Instead, you hear them accelerating behind you, itching to get past. They are being delayed by mere seconds. The road widens or there’s a gap in the parked cars and you pull over, then the strafing commences. In the incident’s aftermath, you cycle onwards, emotions whirring and clacking like a poorly adjusted dérailleur.

I’ve always been at a loss to label this event. It was just one of those daily or weekly things. Until today, that is, because I read a blog post where it was described as a ‘punishment pass’:

I made it home, and the following is a copy of the text message exchange I had with J:

“And I’m home. Only the two punishment passes and the one obscene suggestion from a stranger, so we’ll class that as ‘home safely.’”

“What’s a punishment pass?”

“If a cyclist is riding to prevent you overtaking, because it’s not safe, when you can overtake you drive as close as you can whilst shouting abuse.”

“How do you put up with it?”

“I have no idea.”

That’s it, that’s exactly it.

Now, whenever I’m almost killed on my way to work/the nursery/the supermarket by a car or motorbike deliberately passing as close as possible, I’ll call it a punishment pass. As a term, punishment pass needs to become a familiar expression. Driving to instil fear in cyclists, at greatly increased risk to their personal safety, needs to become a recognised thing in the same way drinking and driving has become a recognised thing. By remaining largely silent, you could argue, society tacitly condones such behaviour. This needs to change, which might just encourage more drivers to think twice about doing it.

Or am I being too wildly optimistic/negative?

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What the next Radiohead album should sound like

Late-model Clampers: Andrew Stables (background) replaces Stuan on drums. In the foreground are (from left) JP Young, Geordie and Samuel

Following his early bedroom experiments, JP Young went on to form indie-electronic pop group The Clampers with Samuel Moore, Geordie McCallum and Geordie’s brother Stuan. The band was part of the febrile music scene in Hamilton in the late 90s and early 00s, which also produced The Datsuns, Dead Pan Rangers, the Hollow Grinders and MSU, among many others. Man, there were some bands back then. The great HtownWiki has more on this tumultuous period of history.

Baby's Got The Blues: setlist from a Clampers' gig at The JBC, circa 2000

The Clampers weren’t around for long–just long enough to perform a handful of haphazard, brilliant gigs, and release a little-known EP, Giant Diamond Eater, hailed by incendiary local music zine Clinton as “what the next Radiohead album should sound like”. In the title track a glowing being hovers over the New Zealand cityscape, regurgitating stars. It could be a metaphor for the transformative power of imagination, or it could just be a vomiting alien.

My favourite songs are Fly By Nighters and Wish You Was Mine, which also features on the Hamilton compilation Year Zero. Both songs were recorded live in the gravel-strewn outer suburb of Frankton.

In my mind, Fly By Nighters is the soundtrack to a kid’s unlikely escape from BMX-mounted bullies. Closely pursued, he executes a graceful turn on his foldable Raleigh 20. His pursuers gyre out of control, colliding like TIE Fighters. He rides on, legs calmly turning, heading for the viaduct out of town. He crests a hill, momentarily silhouetted by the late afternoon sun, and gives a final joyful wave.

Fly By Nighters

Wish You Was Mine

You want to listen to the full EP? We got the full EP.

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Dad when he wakes up

Dad when we wakes up

By Kiwa, aged 3 and a half

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More lost songs from Te Kuiti

Freak beneath the streetlight: JP Young

Following the first instalment, my brother JP has kindly allowed me to post two more of his early recordings. Like the others, these were produced in his bedroom on Sturgess Terrace, Te Kuiti, using two battered tape recorders. They wear their influences proudly, from Chris Knox to the Double Happys, from the Velvet Undergound to Pavement–going out to anyone who’s ever felt like a freak beneath the streetlight.

Freak beneath the streetlight

Weirdo on the corner

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